Carrots: Tracing this Vegetable’s Roots

Carrots: Tracing this Vegetable's Roots | Food & Nutrition Magazine | Volume 9, Issue 1
Photography by Kate Cauffiel | Food styling by Christina Zerkis | Prop styling by Lindsey Parker

The mildly sweet, crunchy carrot has evolved from its Central Asian and Middle Eastern origins. Carrots first were grown for their aromatic leaves and seeds, but farmers in the Middle East began selectively breeding wild carrots to reduce the bitter, woody core and enhance their natural sweetness. Today, the core or taproot of the carrot plant is commonly eaten.

Carrots are a biennial plant, taking two years to complete a full biological lifecycle. During the first year, leaves form, then store sugars in the taproot. This energy helps the plant flower in its second year. The taproot consists of an outer core, called the phloem, and an inner core, the xylem. The pulpy phloem holds the sweet starch, while the tough-textured xylem transports water and nutrients from the stem to the root.

Available in a variety of hues including white, yellow, dark red and purple, carrots often are associated with the color orange. The reason is controversial, and perhaps political. One theory is that in the 17th century, Dutch growers began cultivating orange carrots to honor William of Orange, who led the struggle for Dutch independence. Scholars presume the vibrant new color resulted from crossing purple varieties with their white and red counterparts.

An evolution-based theory is that over time, a mutation caused the purple coloring to fade, bringing its yellow-orange core to the surface.

Although orange carrots dominate grocery store shelves, small-scale farmers have reintroduced other colors, much to the delight of geneticists studying the nutritional quality of vegetable pigments.

In the Kitchen: Carrots are affordable and easily accessible year-round, and the sixth most-consumed fresh vegetable in the United States. There is no shortage of imagination when it comes to cooking carrots. Classic preparation techniques include roasting, pureeing, stewing or juicing, and creative chefs are finding new ways to incorporate carrots into old favorites.

By combining pureed carrot with almond flour, the Italian favorite gnocchi is transformed into a higherprotein, more nutrient-dense version. To pay homage to carrot cake while lowering added sugars, top morning oatmeal with shredded carrots, maple syrup, vanilla extract and cinnamon. In French cooking, carrots, celery and onion make up the trio for mirepoix, the seasoning base for countless gravies, soups and sauces.

In the Clinic: Although naturally sweet, carrots are low in calories. An orange carrot that is 7 inches long and 1? inches in diameter contains 30 calories, mainly from carbohydrates, and 2 grams of dietary fiber. Orange carrots also contain potassium, important for blood pressure control and cardiac and renal health.

A rainbow of pigments means diverse nutrients. For example, orange carrots have vitamin A-promoting alpha and beta carotene, which are critical for healthy eyesight, while purple and red carrots contain anthocyanin and lycopene, respectively, powerful antioxidants linked to lower risks for certain cancers.

Interest in carrots is growing in cosmetics. Products featuring carrot powder, extracts or oil from carrot seeds can be topically applied for cosmetic purposes to possibly improve skin tone, reduce wrinkles and scars, and increase elasticity. However, research is very limited.

The lunchbox favorite baby carrots started as an attempt to salvage aesthetically “ugly” produce. Carrots that buyers perceive as undesirable in size and shape are shaved into 2-inch pieces. While they are convenient, baby carrots and other types of “fresh-cut” produce present an increased risk for microbial crosscontamination; therefore, certain practices are utilized in their processing to reduce this risk. Some concern has emerged over the use of chlorine in the washing of baby carrots, and other vegetables and fruits; however, chlorine-based solutions and other antimicrobial agents are important for food safety. The minimal amount used is defined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and food is thoroughly rinsed prior to drying and bagging. Additionally, the amount of chlorine used for washing carrots is less than the amount found in regular tap water.

In Quantity: Carrots are best stored unwashed, tightly sealed and in the coolest part of the refrigerator. Avoid storing carrots near apples, which produce ethylene gas. If left unwrapped at room temperature, carrots lose flavor and crispness. Maintaining moisture is vital: Remove the green stems and bundle carrots in a damp cloth. If carrots develop a “white blush” (a filmy coating that indicates dehydration), they are still safe to eat. Soak them in ice water to restore their color.

When following a recipe, estimate that 1 large carrot (4 ounces) will yield 1 cup shredded or thinly diced. If purchasing in bulk, expect 1 pound of carrots to provide 3 cups chopped, 2? cups grated or 1? cups cooked or mashed.

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Bethany Oxender
Bethany Oxender, MS, RDN, is a clinical dietitian based in Ann Arbor, MI, specializing in weight management. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram and read her blog, Bethany Grey.